PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – In February 2021, Brian Pinson had just committed to accepting a position as the park manager of Champoeg State Heritage Area. He and his family were living in Florida, but he convinced them to move to the Willamette by telling them how the temperature rarely dropped below freezing or climbed up to a scorching degree.
However, the week the family packed up and moved across the country, the weather was anything but temperate.
“It looked like we had a category four hurricane all over the park. I was really shocked and surprised at the amount of downfall trees that have been blown over and it was pretty horrific,” Pinson recalled.
The family had arrived in the middle of the ice storm. The park Pinson was supposed to start working on in a couple of weeks was a disaster.
The park buildings had lost power, which meant there was no access to water. There were people in campers stuck in the park and many roads were blocked by fallen trees.
Pinson said “widow makers” were a big concern. Those are broken branches left dangling in tree limbs, at risk of falling at any moment.
More than 30 miles east of Champoeg State Heritage Area, Sam Gibson was dealing with his own mess after the storm. Gibson manages Milo McIver State Park near Estacada.
“The forecast said snow and we were looking forward to it. Instead of the snow, we got a good three-quarters of an inch of ice that coated the trees in the park, and then a pretty major wind storm coupled with that ice was just too much for many of the trees to handle,” he said.
The snow and ice stuck around for days. Like Champoeg State Heritage Area, Milo McIver State Park also lost power. The storm damage was so extreme and created so many dangers, that the park had to close for a month.
There are only three full-time rangers and Gibson who work at the park. They had their work cut out for them after the storm, but thankfully, Gibson said volunteers came forward and spent hundreds of hours clearing the park’s 16 miles of trails and paved roads. He said if it weren’t for the volunteers, the park would have remained closed for another month.
“When people saw the amount of damage in the park, it kind of served as a catalyst to bring people together that love Milo and want to see it opening, functioning and beautiful,” Gibson said.
While most of the work was completed in the month-long closure, he said there was still plenty to do throughout the year and some of the damage is still visible. In the winter, when the ground isn’t covered in vegetation, Gibson said visitors can see the debris that remains along the roadways. The park is hoping many of the fallen branches and cut-up logs will decompose in the forest.
Pinson said there are plenty of piles of logs lying around at Champoeg State Heritage area too. He said things look more normal when there are leaves on the trees, but the budding leaves caused another wave of problems in the spring of 2021. Oak trees especially had a difficult time. If their branches were weakened by the storm, the added weight of the leaves was sometimes too much for them to bear and they would crack.
“Once the rains came and then everything leafed out, it was another little mini storm. Several times throughout the season trees would fall over or branches would just break and fall,” he said.
Pinson credits his park rangers and volunteers for staying on top of the work throughout the year and said the park’s regular visitors have noticed how far it’s come.
“Those that come once a month or once a week, just constant praise over how much work has happened because they really saw the park at its worst, and the staff, of course, made it back to its best,” he said.
Oregon State Parks says it’s seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help cover the cost of the damage caused by the ice storm. It says only 75% of the parks’ recorded expenses are reimbursable. So far, only $2,872.50 has been obligated to Oregon State Parks to help cover the cost of water line repairs at Milo McIver State Park.
The department estimates Champoeg State Heritage Area’s reimbursable costs are more than $107,000. Oregon State Parks says it is still in the process of compiling the cost of clean-up and workforce hours.
Pinson said it’s been a crazy first year in Oregon, between the ice storm, heat dome and drought, and he’s hoping for milder weather in 2022 that will allow some of the park events that were postponed in 2021 to return.
“It’s just going to be nice to kind of get back to some sense of normality,” he said.